SEBAGO LAKE – This year’s prize for the biggest fish caught at the 11th annual Sebago Lake Rotary DerbyFest came with strings attached.


On the event’s first day, Saturday, at around 4:30 p.m., David Donnelly of Windham started reeling in what felt like a big fish just by the fight it was putting up. He was aware he might have a winner on the line, but little did he know that he had snagged another fisherman’s line as well.

“My line took off and it set someone else’s trap off. So the fish I’m fighting got hung up on this other guy’s line and we’re basically playing tug o’ war,” said Donnelly, a Windham native and owner of Donnelly’s HVAC.

Once the fish bit, Donnelly said, the 14-pound, 14-ounce togue swam straight toward Zachery Geyer, a Bristol resident who was fishing about 40 yards from Donnelly. Donnelly, whose late father, Red Donnelly, ran the former Red Sands Restaurant in North Windham, had to muster all the sportsmanship his father taught him as a boy as tensions ran high on the surface of Jordan Bay.

“I’d say it was pretty intense for a while there just because he didn’t want to let go of his line,” Donnelly said, referring to Geyer, who did not return phone calls by press time. “I don’t think it would have been stressful had it been an 8-pound fish. But because it was a big fish it was very stressful,” Donnelly added.

Once Geyer agreed to reduce the slack on his line, Donnelly was able to bring the big fish up through Geyer’s hole, which he said had “a bunch” of other lines sinking into the water. Donnelly then called event organizer Tom Noonan to make a ruling.

But by the time Noonan arrived, Geyer and Donnelly had worked out an arrangement to split the top prize if their togue indeed won the derby. That negotiation was also tense since they knew top prize was a brand new fishing boat donated by Moose Landing Marina in Naples.

“I have to say, my dad was out there with me. He used to teach me that being a sportsman is about demonstrating sportsman-like behavior, so I decided to do the right thing,” said Donnelly, who’s been ice fishing most of his life and won second place in the 2009 Statewide Derby hosted by the Sebago Lakes Rotary Club.

Right there on the ice, prior to Noonan’s arrival, the two decided Donnelly would keep the boat and give Geyer a check for half of the boat’s value.

The oral agreement was solidified in writing after the derby was completed Sunday, with Noonan having the two anglers sign a legally binding contractual agreement.

“Sportsmanship carried the day,” Noonan said regarding the strange, but not unheard of, arrangement.

In 2001, Noonan said the prize for the 100th largest fish, a category the derby no longer features, went to a young boy and an older gentleman whose hooks had been swallowed by the same fish. In that case, the older man let the boy reel in the fish and take the prize.

“So this does happen,” Noonan said, “But just to be sure, I checked with Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife because we are licensed by IF&W. I also ran it by the warden service, since there are laws covering this. Both said it was fine.”

While their relationship was definitely tense during the 15 minutes the fish was on the line and could have been lost if they weren’t careful, the Donnelly and Geyer will always share the 2011 title as co-winners.

“I’ve never seen him before in my life,” Donnelly said of Geyer, “but I certainly know him now.”

A ‘good’ derby

Despite the strange tale regarding the winning fish, Noonan said this year’s installment of the derby, which has grown into the third-largest derby in the country, “went well” with about average attendance.

Noonan said ticket sales were “good, but not stellar.” He attributes that to last year’s poor weather, the establishment of other derbies in Maine, and the fact that the previous years’ primary sponsor, Maine Chevy Dealers Association, pulled out and wasn’t offering a pick-up truck for the top prize.

This year, 1,400 people registered for derby with 4,000 total attendees either fishing, viewing or taking part in the Polar Ice Dip on Saturday and Snowmobile Speed Run on Sunday. Those numbers are higher than last year’s 1,100 entries but much less than the derby’s biggest event in 2005 when 6,000 people took part. This year’s anglers caught 1,542 fish, which breaks the record for the highest catch ratio per entrant.

The ice “was in good shape,” Noonan said, “and nobody got wet.” The adequate ice coverage allowed fishermen to spread out and very few disturbances were reported by the 20 game wardens on duty, Noonan said.

“This was a fisherman’s derby,” Noonan said. “It wasn’t about partying, it was about fishing. The people who were out there were out there to fish.”

The only party to be had was the chilly polar dip on Saturday, which saw 130-plus jumpers taking the plunge into Jordan Bay off Raymond Beach. According to Noonan, the dippers raised a record $63,500, which goes to the dip’s beneficiary, the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.

Wearing a shirt that reads “Beat Cancer,” 9-year-old cancer survivor Neve Cawley, at right, along with friends and family who jumped with her, run for the changing room after braving the icy depths of Sebago Lake as part of Saturday’s Shaw’s Polar Dip. Cawley was the 2010 Slugger’s Kid for the Strike Out Cancer in Kids Program and was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2007 and completed treatment in 2009. For more photos of the derby, check out pages 6 and 12. (Staff photos by John Balentine)

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